A recent has highlighted the existence of a secret U.S. detention system aboard U.S. Coast Guard cutters under the aegis of the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ being waged by the U.S. government.
As a step towards stemming the inflow of hard drugs like cocaine from South America towards Central America and further north, the U.S Coast Guard has deployed cutters miles further into the Pacific Ocean.
Whenever a boat is captured with drugs, the caught smugglers are transferred onto the Coast Guard vessels and kept shackled on the deck, at times even exposed to the elements until arrangements are made to transport them to the U.S. for trial.
However these wait periods are not limited to a few days but can go up to weeks and months, the NYT report stated. According to the Coast Guard officials, they have the authority to do this as the drug smugglers are not considered as being under arrest until they are on U.S. shores.
Nonetheless the treatment suffered by detainees has drawn criticism from even Coast Guard officials.
The Case of Jhonny Arcentales
The news report featured an Ecuadorian fisherman named Jhonny Arcentales who was one of those detained.
He was captured while moving cocaine on a boat with few other men by U.S. Navy and Coast Guard near Guatemala. He was shunted between several Coast Guard and Navy ships as the Coast Guard boasts continued with their patrol to pick up more smugglers moving cocaine via the Pacific Ocean.
For nearly 70 days Arcentales and other captured men were held onboard, chained to a ship’s deck or the cable running along it.
After finally being transferred to the United States, he was charged under drug trafficking laws, and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
Reasons For the Delay Are Legitimate
The U.S. Coast Guard argues that the logistical challenge of getting the men to shore was the reason for the day. In general U.S. courts have agreed with the argument that the delays are legitimate. However in reality, the Coast Guard moves people quickly when needed.
But in most cases, the captured men are moved to a port where they are hidden in a room in a helicopter hanger or below the deck for the time that the Coast Guard cutter gets refuelled or the crew gets a break, after which the men are retrieved and taken back to the sea.
These delays are thought to be unreasonable by some Coast Guard officials as well.
With the decision to prosecute more and more individuals, the length of confinement for the men has been increasing greatly. On an average such a system results in people being carted around for an average of 18 days, but it is much longer at times as the government waits to gather more and more people.
Lack of Basic Human Rights
The condition experienced by the detainees on the ships is described as a “real terror”.
In fact they didn’t even always have access to bathrooms as all ships “don’t have necessary facilities”. The Coast Guard has pointed out that the ships aren’t really equipped as detention centers, so “this is what we’ve got”.
The Legality of the Detention System Under International Law
The legality of the practices followed by U.S. Coast Guard in detaining these men has not been raised in an international context or in criminal courts so far.
During trials in the United States, when defense attorneys have tried to raise the issue of the inhumane treatment suffered by the suspects, some judges have agreed, but have noted that nothing can be done to dismiss the case, as the law doesn’t allow it.